The Big Mo: Interviews With The Best Motorcycle Stunt Riders
Underground cult heroes, starving artists, world champions, women warriors, agro adolescents and the occasional Latin teacher: The best motorcycle stunt riders tell us what motivates them to ride.
Why do they do it? Why are so many riders willing to risk life and limb to perfect their sportbike stunting skills, often sacrificing all of their free time and personal relationships (not to mention, a decent credit rating) in the process? Stunting isn't like football or rock music, where hard work, talent, commitment and effort might eventually (in theory) land you a million-dollar salary. It's hard to even consider stunting a sport. It has no sanction, no rules, no governing body, little recognition beyond its participants and, except for very limited exceptions, no real money to be made. One seasoned rider once said that calling yourself a pro stunter just means you live on your girl's couch and you carry a credit card balance roughly equal to four years' tuition at a decent private university. If that's the dream they're all chasing, then what motivates, drives and inspires stunters to keep investing in the game?
Who better to ask than Antonio Carlos "A.C." Farias, the Brazilian-born godfather of modern streetbike stunt riding? After all, Farias has been stunting since before many of the new generation riders were even born (he started in 1981), and, as anyone who met him at the recent Stuntwars event can tell you, his enthusiasm for the sport hasn't wavered a bit. Farias says the key for him is that his motivation has never been money or fame or any of those other traditional pro-level perks. It's always been about his passion for riding and mastering the craft. When Farias started out, there were no tricks to copy, no how-to videos and no stunt community to support him--he was all on his own, just riding to see what amazing things he could accomplish on a motorbike. This drive to push himself further and further on the bike is what kept him going through his early years after he relocated to Europe and often had to take menial jobs to pay the bills, and he says that this passion to be the best is even more of a motivator now when there are so many other gifted and talented riders involved in stunting. He still trains three hours every day--"I don't like to fall behind," he tells us--and even though he feels the inevitable aches and pains after from 20 years toiling in the saddle, he still insists that "it always feels good when I ride."
Of course, having a standout role model like A.C. Farias, a rider who continues to innovate year after year and always embodies the pure joy and essence of stunting, is a great motivator for other riders. One professional stunt rider who readily admits to being heavily influenced and motivated by A.C. Farias is the consummate perfectionist Jason Britton. "No matter how many times I ride with him, I will still bow down to him," says Britton. Like Farias, Britton is one of the select few stunters who can legitimately claim the title "professional," as his riding skills actually pay his bills. After a disappointing foray into road racing, Britton made the switch to stunting seven years ago after he learned skitching and some other basic stunts and got hooked on the adrenaline rush. Believe it or not, that rush is still a motivator: "The best feeling for me is still new stuff that I haven't pushed it with yet." Echoing Farias' sentiment, Britton is still, in his own words, in love with riding. "I take pride in my ability to do whatever's hot, add my own flavor to it to make it different and then polish it and nail it clean every time I attempt it."
Unlike Farias and Britton, some "pro" riders hold down a day job and still manage to find time to stunt on the side--or maybe it's the other way around. The best example of this we know is New Hampshire-based stunter Chris "Teach" McNeill, who balances a professional career teaching Latin to sixth- through ninth-graders at a private school in addition to performing in stunt competitions across the U.S.A. and overseas. McNeill has always "been into bikes," and a close relationship with his younger brother cultivated the competitive streak in him from an early age. When asked what got him started, Teach answered: "Since day one, I have been a speed junkie." A self-described first-class squid in the old days, he looks back and says he's "lucky to be alive--racing on back roads in nothing more than shorts and a T-shirt." Soon, he got started road racing, which eventually hooked him on stunting: "I remember it being so bad-ass, just wheeling down the straightaway after winning a race." Inspired by watching Matt Gorka and Wink 1100 "on crappy VHS tapes," Teach got a look at what could be accomplished on two wheels (or, more frequently, one) and gave it a go himself. Despite all his hard work to push the sport forward, he still thinks of himself as a teacher who stunts "just for fun." McNeill is adamant that he will never stunt full-time. "The bottom line is that I do it for the enjoyment, the challenge of conquering the machine and the pleasure of entertaining the crowd."
Anthony D'Orsi, aka "Tony D," got his first bike to "meet girls, go to the beach and flex." Now 27, D'Orsi has accomplished as much as any rider in the sport, performing in Australia, France, Cuba and even at the World Stunt Championships in 2004. When asked if he had ever lost his motivation, D'Orsi said, "No. No. I have never thought about quitting, never considered giving it up. It comes down to heart, and I got heart for this. Put me in front of people--I'm alive riding in front of people." A lot of people have different opinions about how big this sport can be, D'Orsi says, but he's not in it for the money. "I don't have a cell phone. I try to be as simple as possible. I don't wanna be no poster boy on no cereal box. I just want to be who I am when it comes down to it."
It turns out--not surprisingly--that this individualistic attitude articulated by Tony D is not uncommon in the stunt world, where riders make huge sacrifices to pursue their passion. Obviously, if they were in it for the money, well, there are much easier ways to make a buck. "Stunters are not mainstream people," D'Orsi says. Instead of referring to himself as a pro stunter, D'Orsi prefers to think of himself as a "freestyle artist."
"We're like any expressionist/artist/entertainer--most of us just want to touch as many people as possible with riding," D'Orsi says.
Kane Friesen shares Tony D's opinion that stunting is more of a creative outlet or art form than a sport in the traditional sense. And indeed, watching Friesen stunt--one of the most athletic, acrobatic riders out there--is less like watching football and more like watching interpretive dance. Personal style and expression is what it's all about to Kane, who continually puts himself in "difficult positions on the bike" and then somehow makes it back out. This is not to suggest that Friesen is content to live like a starving artist, though--on the contrary, he has hustled to capitalize on this "art form" and turn it into a bill-paying endeavor. In the process, he's discovered that a "career" as a "professional stunter" involves way more than just wheelying bikes. "We're all mechanics, cameramen, promoters, image designers, webmasters, writers...I love it, but it runs my life." But it has paid off--he's got a brace of lucrative sponsorships from mainstream moto industry companies like Rocket Nation (Joe Rocket's new line) and FMF Exhausts and Shoei Helmets, and he's already been on the cover of two magazines (including this one).
Josh Clem of Team Controlled Insanity, one of the nation's top up-and-coming stunters, says that taking a long view of his stunt career is what helps him overcome the inevitable minor setbacks and tedious moments. "I always remind myself that a show is not five minutes; it's actually the five years that led up to that moment and everything that you've learned and mastered in that time." Clem says that, in his case, the years of practice really paid off--he showed up at his first competition and actually won. "I was nobody--we went to have a good time and I ended up winning enough money to pay for our trip." Clem also says that pleasing the crowd drives him, especially now that he's begun competing more. "If the crowd is pumped, I will go the extra step and push a little harder."
Of course, you don't have to be a successful competition rider to become popular in stunting--one of the benefits of this thing of ours being an art form and not a sport. Twenty-six-year-old Ernie "E-Dub" Vigil of New Mexico's Team Outermost is one of the more popular riders in the nation, despite the fact that Stuntwars 2006 was his first competition (where he did manage to qualify for the final). Riding since age seven, E-Dub is definitely another passion-driven stunter. What he loves most, he says, is the opportunity to be creative: "It's more of a passion; I'm just trying to push the sport." Although E-Dub has committed to stunting full-time for '06, he has no idea where it's going to take him. "If this sport doesn't go anywhere, I guess I'll be that 45-year-old guy out there on the bike wheelying around with gray hair." No matter what, he's not stopping--opportunities like traveling to Japan for a stunt exhibition this past spring keep E-Dub motivated to go out and practice five times a week, even braving the cold New Mexico nights by himself.
One of E-Dub's friends and frequent stunting partners is Jessica Maine, better known as "Road Rash Chic," one of only a few females presently pursuing stunting as a career. As you might have guessed, Maine is often motivated when someone tells her that she can't do something. "I've always been a tomboy and put myself up against guys, so I'm used to someone always making dumb comments," she says. These remarks cause her to "push back." A one-time car racer, Road Rash Chic says that she feeds off of the speed of stunting, the adrenaline: "It's in my blood to do something like this." On what motivates her most, she says, "I want it to be so we can make a living at it. I want to get better for myself, and after seeing guys like Jason Britton making a career out of it, I want to get in on that action."
Another rider challenging the conventional wisdom of stunting (and bruising an awful lot of big-boy egos in the process) is squeaky-clean, 14-year-old stunt prodigy Aaron Colton. Having ridden a big bike for only four months when he broke onto the scene last fall, Colton already had a bag of tricks that would make most veteran stunters envious, including circles, bar tricks, countless combos and acrobatics. "I catch on to things real fast," Colton says, sheepishly. As far as motivations, Colton credits his "friends, family and sponsors" as driving him to go further with his riding, as well as riders like Vertical Joe Dryden, whom he describes as "super-smooth." But never mind who motivates him--know this--having an eighth-grader clean tricks that challenge all but the top riders has had one hell of a motivating effect on lots of not-so-gifted stunters who we've heard from.
Of course, it's all well and good to hand over your life to an activity you love, but how long can riders live on motivation alone? One rider who knows the answer to this question better than anyone is one of the O.G. American stunt riders, 1096's Matt "Thew" Blankstrom. Thew was one of the first all-star stunters back in the day when the XSBA (Xtreme Sportbike Association) was big news. Thew's crazy on-bike acrobatics earned him notoriety in the sport, and the Spinderella and other signature tricks have become a prerequisite for up-and-comers. Noticeably absent from the stunt scene for the last couple of years, Thew still keeps a finger on the pulse of what's happening--from a comfortable distance. "When you hit every wall there is, it's tough mentally to keep going," Blankstrom, of Muskegon, Michigan, says by way of explanation. He readily admits that he has since "lost all motivation to ride," at least professionally. Initially inspired by friend and former 1096 teammate Matt Gorka (another big name who has since retreated into the distance), Thew says that "riding with his friend [Gorka] was really motivating--I would do anything to impress him." Thew and his contemporaries were perhaps just a few years ahead of their time, doing great things but with little or no popular or industry support. "The scene was so much crap, bullsh*t and backstabbing. The same thing, just different people lying to you...
"It was all `just around the corner,'" he says, remembering. "For four years, my now-ex-wife shared my dream with me...the video income, merchandise, movie talk, it was always so close." The final straw came when Blankstrom knocked off the world's longest-stoppie record in Iowa. "I got a Teknic leather jacket, Pirelli tires and the world record and nothing else out of it. It just wasn't worth the incredible effort anymore."
Thew hasn't totally stepped out of stunting, however. He still rides--just for fun--often with his friends the Starboyz and the Adrenalin Crew. And even though his "professional" experience left something of a bitter taste in his mouth, all of his intense effort still inspired--and continues to inspire--stunters today, a time when the activity and lifestyle gains traction and the sort of industry support Blankstrom deserved but never attained.
And so the circle of motivation continues to go around...